Harry Botha, 75, ran three hours of the Everest Marathon with a broken wrist and jaw. So the possibility of losing some fingers because he took a pee break during this week’s North Pole Marathon was all just a part of another day at the races.
Botha, the oldest finisher at this year’s North Pole Marathon, achieved another landmark by becoming the one of the oldest to qualify for the Marathon Grand Slam Club, which requires completing marathons on all seven continents and North Pole race (he’s four years younger than the record holder in both achievements). It’s not the culmination of a lifetime of discipline and training, just what the resident of Pretoria, South Africa, has achieved since taking up slow jogging for the first time when he retired 10 years ago.
“I’ve been so blessed that I’ve been able to travel the world this way,” he said. “For my retirement I couldn’t ask for anything else.”
“Every time I’ve gone across the places it’s been a completely different experience and I meet completely different people.”
But while he’s undergone more painful and challenging moments, the start-to-finish experience at the top of the world – completed by fewer than 500 people since the first race in 2002 – is like nothing else on Earth.
Marathoners as a group often have religious-like devotions to everything from diet to sleep to pacing to shoes (many order long-discontinued models of the latter online once they find one that’s perfect for their foot and running style). All that goes completely out the door in the world’s northernmost officially recognized marathon at the Barneo ice camp at roughly 89 degrees latitude north.
“In this particular case whatever you’ve eaten and whatever sleep you’ve gotten that’s where you are,” Botha said.
Runners arriving in Longyearbyen jet-lagged after flying halfway around the world may be awake for 18 hours before making the two-and-a-half flight to Barneo and starting the race. Botha said this year’s race started at 10:30 p.m. April 9, two hours after he arrived.
“It was probably the best thing,” he said. “We wouldn’t have slept at all with all the excitement.”
The temperature was minus 30 Celsius at the start of the race, but dropped to about minus 40 by 6 a.m., when plenty of people were still running because the course of jagged ice and snow is likely to take well beyond twice their “personal best” to finish (the top men’s and women’s finishers among the 55 racers this year were Piotr Suchenia of Poland in 4:06:34 – a record – and Frederique Laurent of France in 6:21.03).
Instead of the usual gear, Botha had a three-page list that included custom snow-running shoes with screw-in studs, waterproof socks, vaseline for his armpits and band-aids for his nipples to minimize chaffing.
Of course, one of the greatest rewards – elsewhere – is the post-race recovery meal. Here you’re thankful for whatever basic Russian staple fare – soup in Botha’s case – is being served in the mess tent (and, of course, for the fact alcohol is sold in there).
All that disruption, pain and possible permanent loss of body parts costs a mere €16,000 (about 146,000 kroner) – not counting transport to Longyearbyen and accommodation/meals in town – although it’s €1,000 less if racers pay the full amount when registering.
So what inspirational thoughts were going through Botha’s head when he finally got to spend (officially) ten hours, 52 minutes and 34 seconds running 13 laps on a 3.3-kilometer loop?
“All the time I’m running I’m saying ‘I’m on lap number four, I’m on lap number four, I’m on lap number four,'” he said. “Then I go past the marker and it’s ‘I’m on lap number five, I’m on lap number five.’ Some people have music going through their head, but for me it was just constantly ‘I’m on lucky number seven, I’m on lucky number seven.”
Still, a few other thoughts managed to enter his head during the (cough) marathon ordeal, including the awareness of a full bladder. The necessary step of taking off his gloves for a minute didn’t seem like a big deal – until he tried to put them back on.
“They had frozen so hard it was like a piece of steel,” he said. “You’d think you could pry it open. You couldn’t.”
He managed to get his hands inside the outer mitts – not the insulated interior– and set out for the ice camp 15 minutes away. By the time he got there his hands were in that numb state that makes thawing them excruciating painful.
“That’s how you get frostbite,” Botha said. “If the camp had been more than 15 minutes away I might have lost some fingers.”
He also had to make a stop at the ten-bed tent assigned to him about halfway through when he felt what he thought might be blister on his heal. After spending a frustratingly long time undoing his frozen laces, he discovered a large chunk of ice in the heal that took yet more time to chip out. But the nuisance was far preferable to what happened to the man at the next bed, who suffered a frostbite blister due to a similar development.
“It was good I stopped before I didn’t feel anything,” Botha said.
But hey, once racers cross the finish line and are fed the experience includes bragging rights to being at the North Pole itself as they are flown there by helicopter. So what were Botha’s thoughts as their guide searched at length for the current location of 90 degrees latitude north on an drafting ice floe that ensured that location changed minute by minute in temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius?
“I’m thinking ‘please find the spot, I can’t take this any more,'” he said.
This from a man who has suffered some remarkably painful moments since his retirement.
Botha started running in 2007 when he retired at 65, just jogging at first until some friends suggested participating in a race that was an “are-you-kidding-me” 16 kilometers long.
“I kind of walked some parts of it, ran some parts, but I finished,” he said.
Botha also ended up talking to a woman during the race who was planning to visit Berlin with her husband, which led to both runners taking part in the Berlin Marathon six months later.
“Then it was on to London, New York, Boston, Chicago,” Botha said.
His first extreme race was the South Pole Marathon in 2012, which is also the first time he heard discussion about the Grand Slam. But running at the bottom of the world proved considerably easier than the top, as he finished in seven hours 15 minutes in temperatures that bottomed out at about minus 25 Celsius.
“It’s less of a problem at the South Pole where you’re running on a glacier in much less snow,” he said.
His most serious ordeal occurred at the Mount Everest Marathon in 2014, shorty after the ice avalanche that killed 16 Nepalese guides near Base Camp. Virtually all climbing expeditions had been canceled and the camp Shepras were on strike “so we had Base Camp to ourselves.”
A 12-day hike was required to reach the camp, which served as the starting line and the marathon course covered much of the return trip.
“The top runners were of course Nepalese,” he said. “They moved like mountain goats from one rock to another.”
Three hours from the finish, Botha slipped and broke his wrist
“They tried to take me off and once it gets dark they have to take you off,” he said. But that would have meant a three-hour penalty so he insisted on continuing.
“So as I’m running I’m holding my arm and I had two Sherpas helping me,” he said “They were kind of like marshals – they grabbed me and said ‘come on.'”
It took him about 12 hours to finish, but the ordeal wasn’t over. He still had to hike out another day to fly back to Kathmandu and get medical treatment, during which Botha said he was having trouble eating.
“I got back to Africa and discovered I’d fractured my jaw,” he said.
But that didn’t deter him from immediately focusing on completing his Grand Slam at the top of the world. He signed up for the marathons in 2015 and 2016, but had to cancel the first one due to illness and the second due to a serious of problems at Barneo that led to major delays in flights to the base that forced many participants to drop out.
Now that’s he’s joined the Grand Slam club (which currently has less than 100 members), Botha said he has no plans to quit racing – and he may even expand into more grueling challenges like Iron Man races.
“I will not stop running,” he said. “I do a marathon in September in Myanmar. Then I’ll start training again in earnest for Tokyo is 2018.”